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Thursday, 20 August, 2015 - 12:42 pm

A lawyer's dog, running around town unleashed, heads for a butcher shop and steals a roast. The butcher goes to the lawyer's office and asks, "If a dog running unleashed steals a piece of meat from my store, do I have a right to demand payment for the meat from the dog's owner?" The lawyer answers, "Absolutely." "Then you owe me $8.50. Your dog was loose and stole a roast from me today." The lawyer, without a word, writes the butcher a check for $8.50. The butcher left feeling satisfied. Three days later, the butcher finds a bill from the lawyer: $100 due for a consultation.

The opening of this week’s portion, Shoftim, begins: "You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that your G-d is giving you, and they shall judge the people with righteous justice." Justice, by definition, is “right.” If not, it is not justice. Why does the Torah add the word “Tzedek,” before "Mishpat," "righteous" justice?

Two terms frequently quoted in the Torah when discussing law and justice are “Mishpat” and “Tzedek,” “justice” and “righteousness.” In one place, G-d says he loved Abraham because he commanded “his household and descendants to keep the way of G-d to do ‘Tzedakah and Mishpat,’” righteousness and justice. What is the meaning of these two terms?

The best way to explain this is with a story featuring long-time New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, for whom a famous New York airport is named. He was Jewish, yet like many of his generation, he chose not to wear his Jewish heritage on his sleeve. In fact, he allowed the public to identify him as Italian. When issues of Jewish interest came up in New York or national politics, however, the "Little Flower" was an ardent advocate for Jewish rights. As New York's mayor, he was one of Hitler’s most outspoken opponents. In his day, he was popular for riding in fire trucks with firefighters, joining police officers on their beats and taking orphaned children to baseball games.

One icy, bone chilling night in January, 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, Mayor LaGuardia arrived at a night court in one of the poorest areas in the city. He told the judge to take the night off and he presided over the court. 

A short time later, an old woman dressed in threadbare clothing stood before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread.

“Did you steal the bread?” he asked. She admitted she had, and explained that her son-in-law had run out on his family, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren had nothing to eat. They would have died from starvation if she had not shoplifted.

Turning to the shopkeeper, LaGuardia asked if he really wanted to press charges, considering the circumstances. The shopkeeper felt sorry for the woman but told the mayor that this woman needed to be punished as an example to others.
Mayor LaGuardia had a dilemma. By law, the woman was guilty and would have to be punished. However, given her reason for committing the crime, punishing her would also be an injustice.

The text-book penalty for shoplifting was 10 dollars or 10 days in jail. If you had been the judge, what would you have done?

LaGuardia fined the woman ten dollars. “Justice is justice,” he proclaimed. A thief must be fined.

Then he did something which stunned the courthouse: LaGuardia took a 10-dollar bill from his wallet and gave it to the woman to pay her fine. Then he looked around the crowded, bustling court room and fined everyone there 50 cents for living in a city in which a grandmother had to steal a loaf of bread to feed her grandchildren. He directed the bailiff to collect the fines and hand the money to the defendant. The total collected came to $47.50, including the 50 cents willingly paid by the shopkeeper. The poor woman was overwhelmed by the gift. After everyone present had paid the fine, they rose to give LaGuardia a standing ovation.

In the above story, Mr. LaGuardia was conflicted between two ideals: Mishpat vs. Tzedek, justice vs. righteousness.

Justice is, and must be, impersonal. It treats everyone equally before the law. It holds all humans up to the same standards and expectations. If justice is altered according to circumstance, it is not justice. You stole bread, you need to pay for your crime. That, exactly, is its power. To create a just society, you need a rule of law which applies to all people equally, under all conditions. If you start making exceptions, you create mayhem.

But there is another ideal, no less important. Judaism calls it “Tzedek,” or “Tzedakah,” righteousness or charity. The rule of law, cold and impersonal, is insufficient. If a grandmother must watch her grandchildren starving while another man has just finished a six-course dinner, there is something very wrong.

A society that teaches justice devoid of sympathy, righteousness, compassion, and kindness is corrupt and will erode. Justice cannot be blind. It must take into consideration the unique and individual circumstances of the people involved—and this is what is called “Tzedek,” similar to the word “Tzaddik” or “Tzedakah.” Yet, if we only follow Tzedek, and we eliminate Mishpat—we end up with pure havoc and a breakdown of all systems and laws vital to the safety and success of any society. Hence, Mr. LaGuardia found the balance: He upheld justice, Mishpat, by fining the woman for her theft, and he upheld the ideal of Tzedek by giving her the money to pay her fine.

We are always passing judgment on people: Our spouses, family members, co-workers, etc. Comes the Torah and tells us that it is not enough to be just in our judgments; we must also be kind and compassionate in our judgments—sensitive to the particular circumstances of the people we judge. This will bring out the best in the people we judge. You don’t want to only win the battle; you also want to win the war.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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